Five things I've learned (Jonny Baker)

Monday, 19 November, 2012
Jonny BakerJonny Baker shares five things he's learned from the first couple of years of developing Pioneer Mission Leadership Training.
It's been an absolute blast - exhausting, exciting and challenging in equal measure. CMS asked me to develop Pioneer Mission Leadership Training as a pathway for equipping both lay and ordained pioneers and we have now just begun the third year - which means all our modules will be up and running. That has included starting an MA and the first intake of those training for ordained pioneer ministry. Here are five things I've learned since it all got off the ground.

1. 'Not fitting in' is a wonderful gift

People who come as pioneers bring an amazing gift. I have come to call it 'the gift of not fitting in'. It's not that people are awkward; it's just that they see something beyond the status quo or business as usual in the church. Every culture or organisation or church needs this if it is to have a future and not get stuck. And every church needs this if it is to be missional and move out of its comfort zone. We have discovered that the gift is multifaceted and each pioneer has a unique shape and calling. Things go best when they develop some self awareness and minister out of who they are rather than someone else's expectation of what a pioneer might be. The gift comes in some combination or remix of apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic in the Ephesians list of ministries. We have also discovered it's not age or gender or culture specific, exclusively lay or ordained - it's simply given and received.

2. 'Why not?' and 'what if?' are at the heart of pioneering

Imagination is essential if we want to discover genuine newness and move in mission to places beyond where we currently are. When we set out I didn't expect that we would talk so much about seeing and about imagination. This seeing involves grief over the way things are and where we have got stuck, and dreaming of new worlds and communities that are possible. It says 'why not?' and 'what if?' rather than 'why?' and 'what for?'.
We have also discovered that seeing differently has a cost. What seems visible and obvious to pioneers is often seen as irritating, troublesome, a pain and something to be resisted by those with vested interests in the way things are. For this reason, pioneering ministry tends to flourish when there is somebody within the structures and systems of the diocese or equivalent who is also able to imagine things differently - who 'gets it'. They are then able to create the space for the new to flourish and interpret it back to others.

3. The church says it wants pioneers but...

This has been the hardest thing to bear. In many places the church is saying loud and clear that we need pioneers, which is great and true and I'm sure it is genuine. Pioneers then respond and often take risks in the process. But it sometimes turns out that perhaps the church didn't quite mean what it said, or there are some big 'buts'. In other places it is clear she's not interested in pioneers at all -  some dioceses still don't recognise pioneer ministry or they suggest that everyone is a pioneer and allocate no resources while their DDOs do their best to steer people away from pioneer ministry as a vocation. We have shed tears, expressed frustration, prayed a lot, and reflected that every journey to the new in the bible - and probably elsewhere - involves going through darkness, letting go, or experiencing wilderness on the way. It's unavoidable.
It seems that the kind of pioneering understood most readily by the wider church involves an outcome that looks something like what we have already; namely a community of disciples with worship, singing, preaching and money being paid back into the centre - preferably all happening within a very short space of time.
Of course there is nothing wrong with that as an outcome but there are two things to say about it:
  • it takes time - five to seven years seems to be the experienced wisdom on this;
  • part of the challenge the church faces is that the forms of church, or the way we do church is cultural so to pioneer in a new space and community will require an imaginative approach that is able to let go some of the old shape, structure and culture in order to allow something new and indigenous to be born. Outcomes will be important but often this journey in mission involves quite a period of discernment of where God is at work, exploration on the way to the new and surprises. Fruit sometimes comes in places you didn't begin to look.
The pressure that is brought to bear in measurement and counting what's happening too early creates undue and unfair pressure. I genuinely don't know what to do about this challenge. I have wished on many occasions I could fix things for pioneers in incredibly difficult scenarios but I can't - we don't have the power, or the resources. I can't see this going away any time soon and if anyone can offer us wisdom here I would welcome it. There are exceptions to this but the difficult scenarios still far outweigh the good ones. A major part of the issue is resources and I think there's much more thinking and work to be done on how we might resource pioneering mission.
At CMS, we are training pioneers in contextual mission and contextual church. It is how those in mission have thought about this for decades and why the CofE originally asked CMS to get involved - due to our experience in cross cultural mission. It's also become the paradigm within which Fresh Expressions articulates what is going on and what is needed and it was the recommendation for the lens required in Mission-shaped Church.

4. Pioneers thrive in community

The magic in what we have been doing is generated by the people in the room - the learning community of pioneers. It's so fantastic to get people who are pioneering sharing together what they are doing and learning and thinking. I have learned so much from them and been so challenged myself in terms of my own faith and life of mission. We are in a very unique position in this in that our pioneers are not an isolated one or two in a wider community of learners which seems to be the case in many other places. We are all about pioneering mission. The second thing about community that I have become much more strongly convinced of than ever before is that pioneers should connect into a mission community on a long term basis, (a sodality if you like mission jargon).
Mission communities or 'spread out' religious communities such as CMS, the Franciscans, Jesuits, Church Army, the Incarnate Network, etc are those whose charism is prophetic mission. There's a recovery of some old wisdom here in that it's been this structure within the church that has best nurtured and helped this gift of pioneering mission flourish down the centuries.
I honestly think that if I was leading a diocese (don't worry, it's not going to happen!) I would invite the likes of CMS to connect with pioneers in the diocese and link them into a mission community and make a CMS appointment to lead it rather than go for a straight diocesan appointment. This requires a bit of a mind shift - probably in the relationship between sodal and modal (modal is the mission jargon for the local gathered structure like a diocese) and how they could work well together. Amazingly this is exactly the mind shift that our local RTP (Regional Training Partnership) has had in appointing a regional hub co-ordinator for pioneers to be located with us at CMS – and so create a pioneering hub in the region. This has been both a surprise and a great gift in the wider area.

5. We're still only at the start of something

It has been remarkable this year to have three year groups simultaneously filling the CMS café area at lunch time on Tuesdays. There's a real buzz. But we haven't even had a group of students go through the course fully yet so it's very early days for us still. We have a growing sense of excitement that, as we hoped would happen, locating pioneer ministry training within CMS as a mission community will really produce some great fruit: genuine new mission endeavours, contextual Christian churches and communities, and a really supportive context for pioneers in the long term. We shall see!
But I sense that this statement is also true for the wider church - it's early days and we need courage to hold on to the vision of pioneer ministry and to talk and think together creatively and honestly about this gift within the ministries of the church - how we discern, encourage, release, resource and support it into the future. Visit the CMS pioneer website and read the CMS annual report [pdf] to find out more.


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